“The Gravedigger’s Wife”, a love story that points to the failure of health systems in Africa

Guled (Omar Abdi) is a gravedigger. Nasra (Yasmin Warsame) is sick. The situation of the Somali couple, who live in a popular area of ​​the Djiboutian capital, is not enviable: their meager income does not allow them to treat the kidney infection from which Nasra is suffering. For his first feature film, Khadar Ayderus Ahmed gracefully portrays the loving tenderness shared by these heroes, embodied by a sublime acting duo whose chemistry amply confirms the love story presented to the viewer. The Finnish filmmaker of Somali origin also draws a social drama that owes its power to the brevity of a perfectly controlled staging. Presented in world premiere at Critics’ Week in Cannes in July 2021, The Digger’s Wife has been screened at many festivals and won several awards including the Etalon d’or du Yennenga at the latest edition of Fespaco. It is also the first film in the history of Somali cinema to enter the Oscars. Interview with Khadar Ayderus Ahmed.

Franceinfo Africa: you were unable to attend the Fespaco. Where were you when you heard you had won the Yennenga Golden Stallion, a prestigious award for African cinema?

Khadar Ayderus Ahmed : I attended the closing ceremony in Paris with friends. When the other prizes were handed out, it seemed obvious to me that I had won nothing. When the last prize was announced, my friends were sure that I had won it, even though I no longer believed in it. And when Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritanian filmmaker who chaired the Fespaco Feature Film Jury, editors’ note) said the title of the film, we went crazy (smile)! I didn’t sleep that night! I am very happy to have won the Etalon d’or. I love Fespaco and it’s one of the festivals I’ve always dreamed of. I have always followed the Fespaco. I was also happy since the selection of the film.

Why did you decide to change the daily life of this gravedigger and his wife suffer from a kidney infection that is difficult to treat for lack of resources?

I was inspired by an event in my family. For me it was mainly about showing an African love story. Which I’ve never seen on screen. I didn’t want to let poverty take over in this story: it stays in the background. It is love, dignity, compassion and tenderness that are at the forefront, although I focus on the health systems on the continent. In the West, for example in France, you will be taken care of by the state when you go to hospital. But in most African countries you have to pay for everything out of pocket to get treatment and not everyone can afford it. Many Africans die of minor illnesses because they have no money to pay the hospital bills. I wanted to underline it with a love story.

Are the gravediggers really standing at the gates of hospitals in Djibouti, as we discover in the film?

This is the case in Djibouti but also in Somalia and Ethiopia. Indeed, there are small groups of gravediggers for hospitals waiting to bury the dead and earn some money for food.

How did you choose this beautiful couple formed by Yasmin Warsame and Omar Abdi?

When I was writing the screenplay, I knew it would be difficult to find actors who would agree to play intimate scenes because the Somalis are Muslims and it’s a very conservative environment. Yasmine Warsame is a supermodel and she ran a summer campaign for H&M several years ago. His posters were all over Helsinki, Finland (where the director lives, Editor’s Note), and she was sublime. I wanted to know who she was and found out she was Somali. I wanted her to play Nasra because she’s brave and not afraid to break the rules. I told myself that if I did this movie, it had to be her. I then contacted her. She read the script she loved and she replied that she felt like it.

As for Omar, he is an old friend who, like me, lives in Helsinki. He had acted in a short film I made a few years ago. It was a natural choice for me. These two actors were my first and only choice. I never thought of anyone but them. Yasmin is cute and a good actress. I wanted people to understand why this man loves this woman.

As for their child Mahad, played by Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim, I discovered him two weeks before shooting in Djibouti (where the film was shot, editors note). I never gave him the script because I didn’t want acting to be a burden to him. So we improvised a lot. I explained to him what was going to happen in the scene and I told him what to do. It was his first movie role and I wanted him to enjoy it. He is a very talented kid. So I formed a family whose members came from three different continents: Yasmin from Canada in America, Omar from Finland in Europe and Kadar from Djibouti in Africa (laughs).

You shot in Djibouti, not Somalia. Is this choice related to security issues?

We shot in this country for a variety of reasons. The first is that before colonization, Djibouti was part of Somalia (where we find the Somali, a community living in East Africa)They speak the same language, practice the same religion and share the same culture. We also found in Djibouti all the landscapes that matched the scenario, especially the desert. Which wouldn’t have happened if we had fired in Somalia. It is also for security reasons that we chose Djibouti because it is one of the safest countries in the world.

Your film is a window into Somali culture. Why did you insist on letting us find out?

This culture is part of mine. I also wanted to show the younger generations of Somalis this culture as it is experienced in Africa. It is never brought forward frontally, but remains in the background of the story.

How do you deal with your dual culture, Somali and Finnish, especially when it comes to the nationality of your film, which was Finnish during Critics’ Week and became Somali at Fespaco

And in some countries it was considered an Arab movie… Somalia is one of the Arab countries. It’s an African movie, it’s an Arab movie, it’s a Finnish movie… Everything suits me (laughs)!

As a member of the diaspora, it is a little easier for you, even if it remains difficult, to make a film as opposed to a filmmaker who works on the continent. As such, what can be your contribution to the development of the film industry on the continent?

A look from the outside makes it possible to approach a situation from a different perspective. When we were in Djibouti, people came up to us to ask what we were doing. I told them I was making a movie about a gravedigger and they were amazed. The gravediggers are part of society, but are considered inhumane. It is my responsibility as a filmmaker to draw attention to these people who have been dehumanized or ignored when they are part of society and give a lot to it.

Many Djiboutians do not see the importance of these gravediggers. I see it as my responsibility to make their voices heard and share their stories. It is the advantage of this African diaspora to be able to look at it again. I came to Finland when I was 16 and I often go back to Somalia. In reality, I don’t consider myself part of the African diaspora, but as an African filmmaker who tells the continent from the inside out.

Has your film been seen in Djibouti † How does it feel to show his film in Somalia, a country in crisis since 1991?

Yes, and it was warmly received by the public in both countries. Viewers have gotten into these characters because they know people who have endured the trials described in the film, namely struggling to find the money to treat their loved ones.

Cinemas were closed in Somalia after the civil war. There was one in the capital Mogadishu, but it was closed. Terrorist groups had made it their headquarters. Today the situation has improved and the cinema has reopened. In November 2021, my film was the first feature film to be screened in Somalia since the civil war.

The gravedigger’s wife, the Khadar Ayderus Ahmed
Avec Omar Abdi, Yasmin Warsame and Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim
French edition: April 27, 2022

Leave a Comment